In a series of interviews to appear in a book published this week, Benedict said that while the use of condoms should not be seen as a “moral solution”, he stepped back from the Vatican’s blanket ban on all forms of contraception.
“In certain cases, where the intention is to reduce the risk of infection, it can nevertheless be a first step on the way to another, more humane sexuality,” said the head of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.
Benedict sparked an international outcry in March 2009 on a visit to AIDS-ravaged Africa when he told reporters that the distribution of condoms could even aggravate the pandemic.
To illustrate his apparent shift in position, Benedict offered the example of a male prostitute using a condom.
“There may be justified individual cases, for example when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be … a first bit of responsibility, to re-develop the understanding that not everything is permitted and that one may not do everything one wishes,” Benedict was quoted as saying in the new book.
“But it is not the proper way to deal with the horror of HIV infection.”
Benedict reiterated that condom use alone would not solve the problem of HIV/AIDS. “More must happen,” he said.
While some campaigners said that the pope’s comments did not go anywhere near far enough, there was a general consensus they would help in the fight against AIDS.
The head of the UN agency leading the international campaign against AIDS said Benedict’s comments were a “significant and positive step forward”.
“This move recognizes that responsible sexual behaviour and the use of condoms have important roles in HIV prevention,” said Michel Sidibe, executive director of UNAIDS.
Sidibe said he had held far reaching discussions with the Vatican on HIV prevention issues in 2009.
“Together we can build a world with zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths,” he added.
In South Africa, where an estimated 5.7 million of the 48 million population are HIV positive, there was also a cautious welcome from the main anti-AIDS lobby but a warning that the pope needed to be much more unequivocal.
While calling his comments “a step in the right direction”, Vuyiseka Dubula, general secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign, said they “still fall below what we expect” from the Church.
“We still don’t agree with condom use only in certain circumstances. We think that the pope needs to do much better than that because his message can be misunderstood by his followers,” said Dubula.
Franco Grillini, president of Italian gay rights group Arcigay, said the Vatican appeared to now acknowledge the harm caused by its previous stance.
“Finally! If the pope recognises, even if it’s only in certain circumstances, the importance of using condoms, it means that he recognises having made mistakes in the past,” said Grillini.
Daniele Capezzone, a spokesman for Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, hailed what he called “a wise and sensible pronouncement”.
“This seems to me to be both historic and positive,” he added.
Veteran British gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, who helped coordinate the Protest the Pope campaign during Benedict’s state visit to Britain earlier this year, said the comments represented a “volte-face” by the Vatican.
“Benedict seems to realise that his unrelenting, blanket opposition to condoms has damaged his own authority and that of the Church,” said Tatchell.
“Most ordinary Catholics have long rejected the pope’s dogmatic, unyielding rejection of condoms. They realise that using condoms can help protect people against HIV.”
But Wanda Nowicka, president of Poland’s family planning federation, said that while the comments could be seen as revolutionary for those within the Catholic Church, their impact would be limited.
“It will only be truly revolutionary when the Church recognises the right of people to determine their own procreation,” she told AFP.
Copyright © 2010 AFP